Muchao (Mona) Cui

The Arrival of the Body that Perceives

Master of Design Digital Design Installation Communication Design Interdisciplinary social practice Culture

The exploration of sexuality and identity through auto-ethnographic narratives in Mixed Reality environments

The purpose of this practice-led research project is to speculate about how immersive and interactive media could nurture narratives about sexuality and identity by using practice-led design approaches.

To understand the core of this creative enquiry, the contextual review investigates sexuality and identity through the lens of Queer Phenomenology. Queer Phenomenology has also inspired the understanding of body and embodiment, which provided angles through to comprehend immersive and interactive media. An autoethnographic approach was adopted as a creative and qualitative research methodology and this has provided the source of the narrative. Autoethnography, along with an action research methodology, was utilised to design the experience.

This project experiments with the possibility that Mixed Reality (MR) environments can be used to invite a bi-curious audience to reflect on their sexuality and identity if provided with the agency to do so. Narratives in MR provide an altered reality, wherein an audience can have novel experiences and perceive sexuality and identity differently. The project presents an interactive prototype of the proposed Mixed Reality experience.

The title The Arrival of the Body that Perceives comes from Sara Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology.1 I am passionate about experimenting with multimodal storytelling and embodied interaction to create a space for Chinese bi-curious people2 to better understand ourselves. Therefore, this research project experiments with the possibility that narratives in a Mixed Reality environment can engage Chinese bi-curious people and allow them to explore their sexuality and identity through multimodal storytelling and virtual embodiment.

The advent of emerging technologies, such as Virtual Reality and artificial intelligence offers interaction, immersion, navigation and participation as extensions to traditional storytelling. Storytelling in Mixed Reality (MR)3 environments provide an altered reality to audiences, whereby they are able to gain new cognition and perceptions through the immersion and the interaction with the physical and virtual stimuli. According to Ahmed, one’s lived experience of inhabiting the body in different spaces can shape and redirect perceptions of sexuality and identity. MR experiences can provide an altered reality where the audience can re-inhabit their body,4 forming new sensations and perceptions to re-imagine sexuality and identity.

The design outcomes of the research encompass a developed script for a proposed experience in a MR environment, and an interactive media prototype. Due to the constraints of the research time frame, the limited access to equipment and facilities, and the unprecedented crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, this thesis is focused on critical contextualisation and a practice-led ideation process that responds to the design objectives. Some of the components of the work were not to be able to be fully developed, particularly the virtual reality aspect of the interactive experience and user testing.

Original Design (Pre-COVID-19) 

The original project aimed to create an MR-based interactive experience that situates a participant in an in-situ physical environment that looks like a minimal bedroom There are three scenes in the experience, each with a different mode of interactivity/immersion. The first scene introduces the user to an interactive documentary sequence via a touchscreen interface that introduces the historical context of sexual identity in China. The second and third scenes use Virtual Reality. The second scene introduces the personal perspective of being a sexually disoriented person in China. The third scene invites the audience to participate in a space of freedom, expression and liberation. At the end of the in-situ experience, the audience is invited to connect with a wider community via the project website/community.

Revised Design (due to lockdown conditions) 

As it was not possible to continue development in Virtual Reality the prototype submitted for examination uses the format of a web-based interactive protype to demonstrate the narrative structure of the experience. This prototype develops one of the scenes (interactive documentary) in some detail. It also contains some volumetric filmmaking samples (demonstrating the aesthetic qualities of volumetric filmmaking) and indicates storylines, triggers, transitions and basic interactions.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology : Orientations, Objects, Others. (Duke University Press, 2006).

2 While anyone may be able to engage with and relate to this work in some way, I am particularly interested in developing this project for a Chinese audience.

3 Described variously as either Mixed Reality, MR or hybrid reality, this term refers to any technology that isn’t a fully immersive VR system, but instead Augmented Reality or augmented virtuality.

4 Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology : Orientations, Objects, Others. (Duke University Press, 2006).